Friday, November 25, 2011

The Tower of London~ More Prisoners

by Debra Brown

"Falstaff"~ Lord Cobham, Sir John Oldcastle

During the reign of Henry V, the Lollards were a religious group who advocated the teaching of John Wycliffe, who had denounced the great wealth of the Church. They were greatly opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as rich barons and merchants who feared that popular criticism might be directed against their wealth as well. The Lollards went underground for a time, but they supported by parish priests, the middle classes and many of the gentry. An assault was finally launched against them by the Church and high ranking nobles. They were call heretics, laws were passed against them and many were martyred, burned at the stake. Young King Henry the Fifth at first opposed the Archbishop who instigated the conflagration and would not allow the man to crown him king.

A good friend of Henry's from earlier years, Sir John Oldcastle, had commanded a section of the king's army, was elected to Parliament and married the heiress of Cobham, becoming Lord Cobham and moving to the Upper House of Parliament. Oldcastle joined the Lollards in Herefordshire and was accused of heresy in the last days of Henry IV, but his friendship with the Prince of Wales prevented any action from being taken against him. The new king protected him from recurring charges, though he did attempt to dissuade him from his Lollard association. Oldcastle refused, saying that he would give all his wealth to the king, but could not abandon his religious convictions.

Henry at last allowed the Church to take action. Oldcastle was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. He was convicted of heresy, but his death decree was delayed by Henry for forty days. Perhaps the king still hoped for his friend to recant. Somehow, Oldcastle escaped from the dungeon, was smuggled across the heavily guarded enclosure of the Tower, taken through the Bloody Tower gate, over the Outer Wall and across the wide moat. It is thought that the king must have colluded in the escape.

Oldcastle, however, was not about to change his viewpoints, and he zealously plotted with the Lollards to seize the King and his brothers during a Twelfth Night celebration. His purpose was to abolish the monarchy and set up a Commonwealth. The King was warned and escaped with his brothers and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry and his men-at-arms captured the Lollards that had conspired against him. Some were killed, others taken to the Tower. Oldcastle managed to escape and hide in various places for nearly four years. He continued to hatch plots against the King. Finally he was 'sore wounded' and brought again to the Tower. Now he was accused of treason as well as heresy, and was hanged and burned, 'gallows and all'.

Shakespeare's play Henry IV had Oldcastle portrayed by his own name, but the family objected, and the name in the play was changed to Falstaff.

Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson

Henry VIII had great autocratic power because powerful barons were dead and their heirs too young to contend against him when he took the throne. His authority was not strongly challenged as was that of predecessors who failed and were forced to sign away power, were deposed or murdered or lost their supporters to rivals. The country wanted peace when he came to the throne, which helped him as well.

Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson had been crooked at procuring money for Henry VII. They charged innocent people with crimes and then allowed them to pay their way out of the legal proceedings. They were highly unpopular. After Henry VII's death, the Council arrested them and thew them into the Tower, though Henry VIII kept the moneys that had been extorted. The Council, to gain popularity for the new reign, decided to execute the two men. There was no death penalty for extortion, so they were charged with 'constructive treason'- the assembling of their friends for a discussion was interpreted as 'an armed conspiracy to overthrow and murder' the new King, though it was likely organized to discuss how to protect themselves from the wrath of the people after Henry VII's death. Dudley wrote a treatise about the advantages of having a monarchy, hoping to impress the new king, but it was never read by Henry VIII. The two were executed on Tower Hill in 1510.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor, was not in favor of Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, but he did defend the King's motives in Parliament. More also supported the reform of the Church, but could not accept rejection of the Pope's authority, nor that Henry should become Supreme Head of the English Church. More resigned as Lord Chancellor and was living on a low income with his family when he received an invitation to the coronation of Anne Boleyn, along with a fifth additional of his annual income to buy himself a new suit for the occasion. Opposed to the divorce and remarriage, he declined the invitation and returned the money. When he was later required to take an Oath of Supremacy, accepting the King as the head of the Church, he would not.

He was taken to the Tower by boat and confined in the Bell Tower on 17 April 1534. His cell had a very high ceiling with one small window high in the wall, and so he lived in near darkness. He was denied pen and ink, so wrote to his daughter with coal. He was allowed no books and was given an illiterate attendant. A constant flow of visitors sought to persuade him to take the Oath of Supremacy.

After a year of illness and pain in the Tower, he walked, leaning heavily on a staff, the four miles to Westminster Hall, where he had previously sat as judge. Fifteen specially commissioned judges sat- among them, Anne Boleyn's father the Earl of Wiltshire, her brother Lord Rochford and the Duke of Norfolk. There was also a jury of the King's known supporters. More's successor as Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, sentenced him to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

He returned by boat to the Tower. His daughter, Margaret Roper, rushed past the guard on the Wharf, flung her arms around him and kissed him, crying. He and others nearby also broke down. He spent five days in his cell composing prayers. On the morning of his execution, he was told that the King had shown mercy and would, rather than hang, draw and quarter him, have him beheaded on Tower Hill. He replied, "God forbid the King shall use any more such mercy on any of my friends." After his death, his elderly wife, Lady More, was turned out of their house. His property and effects were settled by Henry on his infant daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who kept it throughout her reign.

Henry VIII had other well known prisoners in the Tower, as did his successors. I am sure that this blog will give each of them some attention in the future.

From The Tower of London by R.J. Minney

See also The Tower of London~ Part I and The Tower of London~ Its Prisoners.

Debra Brown is the author of a much happier story, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire. Visit HERE to read about the book and enter the current giveaway of two copies.


  1. Such sad and ghastly tales. That Tower has seen a lot of misery in its time.

  2. Yes, it has. Though it was built as a protective residence, not a prison, it had its dungeons and other horrors. I often wonder at the things that did not get recorded, or the records which have been lost. Little things, like... someone tried to get in and got waylaid at the Lion Tower. Ta! More on the Lion Tower someday.

  3. Many shivers trickled down my spine reading those stories. More seems particularly tragic to my eyes. Appreciate the history lesson!

  4. Thanks to Debra Brown, author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire for sharing this interesting post The Tower of London ~ More Prisoners.

  5. Indeed, one still feels like weeping for Thomas Moore. Yet beheading was a mercy compared to hanging, drawing and quartering.


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